Hawai‘i Rated 'Mostly Closed' in 50-State Analysis of Police Misconduct Record Laws
Police misconduct records are either secret or difficult to access in a majority of states - 35 of them plus Washington, D.C. But the breeze of openness is blowing. Seven big states have opened records in recent years - California, New York, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland.
Now 15 states have laws that allow these records to be mostly available to the public - up from 12 a few years ago.
Legal experts say transparency of police misconduct records is one of the keys to police reform.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, put it this way: “One thing that has changed is greater transparency. We have seen a number of jurisdictions enhancing and changing the way police misconduct records have been handled. You can’t have real accountability with the public unless you are willing to share information.”
In an analysis of public record laws in all 50 states, Hawai‘i received the rating "Mostly Closed." The 50-state list was based on an analysis of statutes and court opinions as well as interviews with experts. To stay up to date with the rapidly changing laws, visit Legislative Responses for Policing-State Bill Tracking Database.
Law enforcement misconduct records in Hawaii are closed unless they relate to the firing of an officer or if the records in question pertaining to an officer’s suspension are part of a pending court case. These records are also destroyed after 30 months according to a police spokeswoman interviewed by the Honolulu Civil Beat.
The Honolulu Civil Beat found a group of Honolulu officers falsified drunk driving tickets to get overtime but kept their jobs, despite 200 DUI cases being dismissed as a result.
In another case, Russel Won beat an inmate and watched his sergeant club him in the head with a blackjack, according to the Civil Beat. A federal grand jury charged him with a felony for lying about the incident; he pled down to a misdemeanor. He was allowed to take a leave of absence while he served his prison sentence but remained a cop, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
More of these cases can be viewed here.
A new law amending Hawaii’s public record laws passed the state legislature in July, 2020. It requires county police departments to disclose to the Legislature the identity of an officer suspended or discharged. It also allows public access to information about suspended officers.
Nationwide, the majority of law enforcement agencies still close records or make them hard to obtain. They claim they are personnel matters, privacy violations, or ongoing investigations that could be compromised. They are backed by strong law enforcement unions and the law enforcement bills of rights that protect the privacy rights of officers over the public’s right to know.
The National Decertification Index published by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training compiles 30,257 decertifications from 45 state agencies, but the names are closed to the public.
Sam Stecklow, a journalist with the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalistic group focused on public accountability, said in an interview some of the states where it has become easier to request records are Illinois, New York Florida, Utah, New York and some cities in Texas. He said Nebraska, Hawaii, Kansas and Virginia are closed to the public.
“There are some states that we haven’t even been able to work at all in because they ... require you to be a resident to make a request,” Stecklow said. “So we just haven’t really tried there. That includes Tennessee and Delaware and Virginia as well.”
Stecklow said many more states release the names of officers only in the rare instances where complaints are sustained rather than the much more frequent instances where the department decides not to punish the officer.
“I think it’s important to make a distinction regarding sustained vs. not sustained cases,” he said. “Many states will allow the release of records about a case in which discipline is imposed, but that is a very small minority of police misconduct investigations.”
Stecklow said if state legislatures wanted to settle the question of requesting misconduct records, they could easily do so.
“They could very easily amend FOIA and explicitly say you know a record that either contains an allegation of police misconduct, or an investigation into an allegation of police misconduct or a disciplinary record regarding misconduct is always public,” Stecklow said.
This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Kallie Cox is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and can be reached at Kcox@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @KallieECox. William H. Freivogel is a professor at Southern Illinois University and member of the Missouri Bar. Zora Raglow-DeFranco, a law student at Case Western, contributed to this report. This story is part of a project on police accountability funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.